Protesters opposing a coal seam gas (CSG) wastewater plant in northern NSW say they will not let police use of pepper spray deter them from their fight against Santos' plans to drill up to 850 CSG wells in the Pilliga.
The Pilliga forest is a vital recharge area for the Great Artesian Basin, which forms the lifeblood of eastern Australia.
As part of its CSG plans, Santos is building a wastewater treatment works at Leewood, which was approved without an environmental impact statement and without public consultation.
Since construction began, the local community has protested outside the gates every day. But in a move likely to fuel community anger against the project, on February 1 police used pepper spray against a protester chained to machinery outside Santos' Leewood facility.
Kerri Tonkin and Cyd Fenwick from Santos's home state of South Australia were locked on to an excavator, part of a group of about 30 activists preventing work on the facility. They were attached to each other through a metal pipe over the arm of the excavator and each had only one arm free.
Moments after the police asked the women to remove themselves, one of the officers ripped off Tonkin's sunglasses, yanked her head back by her hair and pepper sprayed her eyes at close range. Tonkin was shocked, blinded and in extreme pain as two officers lifted her up and threw her over the arm of the excavator, while her arm was still in the metal pipe.
Tonkin said: “I was peacefully protesting to protect our land and water from coal seam gas. I was in a vulnerable position with only one arm free and without the freedom to move around. The actions of the police officers were excessive and dangerous. I'm surprised I didn't leave with a dislocated shoulder or a broken arm.”
Fenwick said: “The escalation of the situation by police was sudden and excessive. Police had only just asked us to move before they used this force. There was absolutely no provocation from either of us to result in this heavy response.”
The next day more than 50 community members protested outside the site. Third generation Coonamble farmer Don McKenzie locked himself to the gate to prevent workers entering the site.
“I would like to publicly ask the government why they are prepared to risk losing the greatest asset we have — our clean water. My livelihood is under threat and I'm feeling terrorised by the actions of the federal and state government by allowing Santos to risk our underground water.”
Sixth-generation farmer Neil Kennedy (pictured) from Coonamble on the edge of the Pilliga protested on February 3 by chaining himself by the neck to the site's front gate, despite heavy rain turning the ground to mud. He held a sign that reads “Pepper spray won't keep us away”.
"We're going to keep on protesting and doing what we can, fighting this thing," he said. He admitted he was "getting a bit old for this", but he doesn't want to see the land destroyed for future generations.
Community group People for the Plain has taken court action over the Leewood waste-water plant, saying the assessment should include a full environmental impact statement and community consultation.
Kennedy said: “I don't think it's right that Santos can build this waste water treatment plant, with all the risks involved, while a court case is still underway to sort out whether its approval without a proper environmental assessment was lawful or not.
"Why can't they wait for due process before they press on in the face of so much opposition and legal uncertainty?”
Naomi Hodgson from the Wilderness Society said: “Given the question marks over the legality of the Leewood facility's environmental approval, and the widespread and committed opposition to it around the region, we're calling on the NSW Government to ask Santos to stand down until the court case is heard."
Sixteen protesters have been arrested in the past month, according to the Pilliga Action Camp, including Jen Hunt, cousin of the federal environment minister.